Volunteer police chaplains provide 'spiritual first aid' Clergy help officers to comfort afflicted

September 12, 1993|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

On a quiet Thursday afternoon in Columbia, Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen found himself in the front seat of Howard County Police cruiser No. 683.

At the wheel was Officer Brook E. Donovan, who had the Beth Shalom rabbi and volunteer chaplain at his side for a routine patrol of Long Reach village.

It was an uneventful two hours, highlighted by the issuance of a $55 ticket to a driver whose vehicle rear-ended a car on Dobbin Road.

But it might have been different.

On a routine basis, the six volunteer police department chaplains

comfort traumatized victims and their families at accidents and emergencies, and accompany officers on the painful duty of telling relatives a loved one has been killed.

A year ago, for example, a chaplain helped break the news of Pam Basu's carjacking death to her husband.

"They provide a service that nobody else could provide," said Lt. Jay Zumbrun, who coordinates the chaplain program. "I'd hate to think what it would be like without them."

The program is invaluable, Officer Donovan said.

"I wear a lot of hats on this job -- social worker, psychiatrist. The hardest one to put on is the messenger of bad news," he said.

"It's important to stress, we're not police officers and we're not trying to be," Rabbi Cohen, said. "We provide spiritual first-aid."

The program was started in the early 1980s to improve police-community relations. The volunteers are especially valuable in notifying people of the death of a relative and in soothing potentially volatile situations, Lt. Zumbrun said.

The chaplains are on call 24 hours and carry pagers, gold police badges, and identification and business cards. They wear blue police jackets with the word "Chaplain" written on the back.

On a typical call, the chaplain remains in the cruiser -- a precaution in case of trouble, and someone to call for backup if necessary.

"If I didn't have confidence in them (the officers), I wouldn't be here," said the Rev. John T. Smith, pastor of St. Luke and Mount Gregory United Methodist churches.

The chaplains are armed only with the tools they need for their spiritual duties. The Rev. Stewart Deal, pastor emeritus of Bethel Baptist Church in Ellicott City, said he always carries his Bible.

"I never know when I may have to read something to comfort someone," he said.

Although the chaplains all are men, several said a woman would be a valuable addition to the group, particularly in working with female victims of sex crimes.

In addition to dealing with the public, the chaplains attend roll call and make themselves available to counsel officers.

Those duties initially raised fears among officers that the chaplains would preach, or spy for police department brass.

Traces of suspicion remain, Officer Tracy McFaul said.

Several months ago, she said, fellow officers teased her about going on a ride with Rev. Dennis N. Kleppin, associate pastor of Bethany Lane Baptist Church in Ellicott City. She said fellow officers asked: " 'What do you need? Saving?' "

That reaction isn't surprising, said George Grimm, a layman and member of Rolling Hills Baptist Church, who is a police and fire chaplain.

"The police department is a very tight family," he said. "We have to work very hard to become accepted."

And not everyone is suited for the duties of a police chaplain, he added.

"It takes a specific kind of . . . person to cross the lines into this kind of work," Mr. Grimm said.

Last September, for example, Officer Donovan relied on Mr. Grimm to comfort Biswanath "Steve" Basu after the carjacking, in which his wife was killed.

"Mr. Basu was crying and wanted to know answers I couldn't provide," said Officer Donovan. "It was a relief when I saw (Grimm). The chaplain knows better how to deal with people."

After the carjacking, police chaplain the Rev. Patrick Carrion, of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, talked with stunned witnesses who had seen Dr. Basu's body.

In the wake of such a traumatic event, "you just don't go home and do laundry," Father Carrion said.

The chaplains see themselves as equipped to deal with the painful questions raised by victims' families.

"Sometimes they'll say, 'Why does God allow these things to happen?'" Father Carrion said.

He tells them: "These things happen because of human frailty. People do evil things. It's not that God is doing evil things."

Though the work can be stressful, and even grim at times, Rabbi Cohen said, "I'm glad, at least, to be of service."

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